Dr. Chelsea Jackson Roberts Brings Yoga To The Youth In Marginalized Communities
Unapologetic and zen
Photo by Ross Oscar Knight
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Dr. Chelsea Jackson Roberts is a yoga educator and the founder of Yoga, Literature, and Art Camp at Spelman College. She runs the organization Red Clay Yoga, as well as her personal website and blog Chelsea Loves Yoga. She began her yoga practice at the end of her senior year at Spelman College. Originally Roberts just picked up yoga as a way to lose weight, so she practiced a lot of hot yoga. Eventually, she learned that there was more to yoga than physical benefits. "I actually used my yoga practice to develop a more healthy relationship with my body," Roberts says. "One that didn’t focus so much on how much I weighed, but one that encouraged me to reflect on being present, aware, and compassionate with my body."
In addition to gaining a love for yoga, music also had a large influence in her life. Raised in Dayton, Ohio, Dr. Roberts says many people aren't aware of the fact that her hometown was the birthplace of funk music. Artists like Zapp and Roger Troutman, Lakeside, Ohio Players, and Slave were her parents high school classmates so her childhood was deeply impacted by the soulful music within her community. "I know that my Dayton/Funk roots played a tremendous role in the way I see and understand community," she says. "I learned how to take pride in where I am from through the lessons and relationships that were nurtured there."
Both of her parents graduated from Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, and later received graduate degrees, so Roberts always knew she wanted to attend a historically black college. She says her experience at an all female HBCU school helped lay the foundation for the ways in which she has been active in her community and for how she shares yoga in socially conscious and innovative ways. While at Spelman, she joined Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. and she describes that decision as one of the most valuable experiences she's had thus far.
"I am honored to be a part of a lineage of African-American women who are educators and advocates for social justice as well," she says. "I was very deliberate in making the decision to be a part of my beloved organization when I was at Spelman College, specifically because it is the first community engaged organization created for and by black women."
After leaving Atlanta, she set off for New York City where she applied to Teachers College at Columbia University and received a MA in International Educational Development. "My experience in New York City definitely revealed how strong I truly was and I was ready to return to Atlanta and put all that I had been studying to practice."
Roberts then became an elementary school teacher while teaching yoga part-time. Not knowing it would become her full-time career, she decided to become a certified yoga teacher and she took on teaching yoga part-time in addition to her regular classes. "I then began to slowly integrate some of the things I was learning in my yoga teachers training into the classroom with my third graders," she says. "I wanted to share this practice with my community and wanted to learn as much as possible." After teaching for a few years, she decided to return to school one more time and attended a five year PhD program at Emory University.
What exactly is your role as a yoga educator? How have you managed to maintain a successful career out of this profession?
"I teach other yoga teachers who want to teach or currently teach yoga. My workshops and trainings are shared across the country and attract people who are interested in using yoga and understanding yoga as a tool for social justice. I also provide intensives and retreats for people who are just beginning a yoga practice. I specialize in making yoga a little less intimidating. I have been very successful in this approach because there is an overwhelming amount of people in the world who are interested in understanding yoga in these ways."
Why do you primarily work with children and teens in marginalized communities?
"Although I spend significant periods of time with children and teens, I also work with adults who work with this age group as well through trainings and workshops. I choose to work primarily in service to and with community youth because of my expertise within the field of education. I also work with children and teens because it is an opportunity for me to facilitate a space I wish I had when I was younger."
Tell me about the Yoga, Literature and Art Camp that you started at Spelman.
"Yoga, Literature, and Art Camp for teen girls is held every summer at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta, Georgia. I founded this space in 2013 when I was finishing my dissertation for my PhD. It really started out as a case study and then it evolved into an annual experience that is moving into the fourth year. The camp is free to participants and we are sustained by the community."
How has living in Atlanta altered your perspective on the world, if it has at all?
"Atlanta is a very unique city. My introduction to Atlanta was attending a HBCU (Spelman College) that was a part of other HBCUs (the AUC). As a result, I saw the diversity that exists across black communities here in the United States and across the world. I was inspired by classmates and friends who were legit entrepreneurs, working on political campaigns, and traveling the world. This was my community in Atlanta and understanding life in this way was normalized. Atlanta is the birthplace and site for many civil rights protests, gatherings, and home to individuals of the movement. I feel that energy here through the work we do through Red Clay Yoga. Atlanta and the people of Atlanta have definitely provided a blueprint for how to make dreams come to fruition."
How do you feel about diversity and representation in the health/fitness and wellness world? How do you see this improving (specifically in yoga)?
"I think that diversity and representation across the health and fitness world will be inclusive once the people sitting at the table, holding power, and making decisions about how messages about health and wellness are conveyed are consistently diverse. In other words, when I see a specific race, body type, or gender identity not represented, I am always interested in how the editorial board, senior teachers at yoga studios, and specifically within the world of yoga—governing boards of conferences—look, and I am curious about their experiences in the world. I don’t understand how we expect diversity when those sitting at the table do not represent diversity. As a result of limited diversity, we miss out on different perspectives, lenses, and ways of reaching broader audience and creating bridges instead of borders."
During this difficult period of social injustice, activists are also calling on creatives. What keeps you inspired to wake up and get up every day?
"The very thing that I learned through yoga, that is essential to my ability to wake up every morning, is the breath. In yoga, my practice allows me to appreciate each breath and each moment. I realized that everything counts. Every breath, thought, word, and action counts in my practice and in my world. When I take time to appreciate the breath, I make space for an appreciation of life. Social justice and what is happening during this moment in time that we are all uniquely experiencing together, both individually and collectively, matters. I can definitely feel overwhelmed these days when understanding justice and experiencing injustice; however, there are infinite opportunities to experience and practice love. I am inspired by love, my community, and my practice."
What are some of your methods of self-care?
"Yoga is definitely in my top five for self-care and so is a walk in the park. I believe that alone time is essential for all activists, yoga teachers, and pretty much anyone who takes care of and supports others. Self-care may be treating yourself to your favorite dessert or budgeting out one monthly massage. Just make sure your self-care ritual is as consistent as you make your obligations to others. Make sure that your self-care practice is something that doesn’t make you feel guilty, but something that celebrates your beautifully unique and radiant self."
What else do you have going on? Any upcoming projects that you can discuss?
"We are moving into our fourth year of Yoga, Literature, and Art Camp for Teen Girls at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta, Georgia. This event is huge and open to teen girls ages 13 to 17. You can learn more about the application process for this tuition-free camp by visiting redclayyoga.org. I also will be traveling quite a bit across the United States in 2017 so folks can have an opportunity to take one of my yoga workshops for beginners. You can learn more about that on chelsealovesyoga.com. Also, for folks who are yoga teachers or interested in how to receive certificates with me, I will be offering a digital course on yogajournal.com."
What is one piece of advice that you would you give to a younger version of yourself?
"My advice to a younger version of myself would be to not be afraid of my own creativity. For me, I would doubt my ability to have an idea that was worthy to be shared because I was afraid that others would not find value in it. Not everyone will find value (or have the awareness to be able to find value in your idea yet). That doesn’t mean it is not worth pursuing. If we continue to be honest, kind, and reflective in the process of working and sharing an idea, chances are the contribution will eventually become reality in some way, shape, or form."